In 1990, the demise of European pop duo Milli Vanilli seemed like an open and closed case of disgrace.
They – Fabrice Morvan and Rob Pilatus – were the lip sync mockers, convicted in the court of public opinion for fraud against a generation of FM Top 40 radio listeners who had been robbed of our precious sense that music and its artistic authorship were directly linked . The punishment? Permanent professional ostracism and cliche status – but when Pilate died of an accidental drug overdose in 1998, the reality became even harsher.
It comes down to
Floats intriguingly instead of landing resolutely.
Luke Korem’s new documentary Milli vanilla attempts to give the non-singers of “Blame It on the Rain” a 106-minute re-evaluation. Were they perpetrators or victims? If they were a gradation of the latter, who were the actual villains? If they were a grade of the first, did the punishment fit the crime? What did Rob and Fab actually do, what was their actual sin, and why did the public react the way they did?
Perhaps Korem’s primary goal is simply to make you think more about Milli Vanilli than ever before. In this it is a great success. It’s more of a fail when it comes to answering some of those big questions and being directly accountable, and I’m not sure I can accept most of its cultural conclusions. But have I been thinking a lot about Milli Vanilli since watching this documentary?
Reader, you know it to be true.
To summarize: in 1989 and 1990, a German-French pair took the American charts by storm. Their songs were damn catchy. Were they already a little crazy? My goodness yes, but when has anyone cared before? People started to care when Milli Vanilli won the 1990 Grammy for Best New Artist, beating Indigo Girls, Tone Loc, Neneh Cherry and Soul II Soul. This was an affront to our common decency, as no silly or infamous artist had ever won a Grammy before. I guess.
Just months after that win, it was revealed that Rob and Fab did none of the vocals on their breakout album. Horror ensued and the name “Milli Vanilli” could never regain its former luster.
Told with more tonal sincerity than your average Behind the music episode, but without a voice of its own other than “general seriousness” (i.e. it is neither sensational nor mocking), Milli vanilla features a solid assortment of talking heads.
Morvan is frank in a selfish way. His play for sympathy contains a contentious account of initial reservations when it was suggested that he and Pilate would just be the frontmen in a charade, while his convoluted explanation of why they deserved their Grammy is somewhat ridiculous. But overall, he portrays Fab and Rob – so self-assured in their media presence at the time – as inexperienced kids who got in over their heads and, once success came, didn’t want to go back to poverty. Who came to blame them?
Ingrid Segieth, assistant to German producer Frank Farian and narrator of an original story in which none of the non-singers expressed any reservations, as well as Charles Shaw, Brad Howell, Linda Rocco and Jodie Rocco, provides insight into their earliest days. real vocalists on “Girl You Know It’s True” and more. We hear about their American escape from an assistant manager, three menacing Arista Records executives and, of course enough, MTV’s “Downtown” Julie Brown.
If you accept Korem’s perspective that Rob and Fab were, at worst, the tiniest fish in this lying pond, the documentary suffers from the absence of the people powerful enough to be the real villains. Farian did no interviews for the documentary. Arista’s Clive Davis didn’t do any interviews, and while at least one of the three Arista cases suggests he must have generally known, no one is going to come out and accuse the titan of fraud. Former Musical Academy head Michael Greene, controversially accused of a pay-for-play deal to get Milli Vanilli to lip-sync at the Grammys, is absent, as is their late manager Sandy Gallin, who may have made the payment. In short, Korem presents Milli Vanilli as puppets, but the most powerful of the people who may have pulled the strings are not here.
That’s frustrating because the savviest cultural observers in the documentary – critic Hanif Abdurraqib is also an executive producer – want to make bigger points about exploitation in the music industry and Korem would naturally like to force some sort of reckoning. But there are too many disconnected points. It’s easy to draw the right conclusions about a scandal in which a group of black performers were marginalized, blotted out, or hung out to dry by a group of white executives who presumably got rich and suffered no visible repercussions themselves, but the documentary should float rather than then ground. That leaves Morvan as a victim deserving of empathy, but inherently undeserving of any triumphant redemption.
Morvan, it turns out, is now a completely usable singer and he can take advantage of nostalgia to carve out something akin to a career. The documentary taps into that same nostalgia to bring complexity to what felt like a simple story 30 years ago. It could have benefited from even more complexity.